If only what happened in Budapest stayed in Budapest.
I have nothing in particular against the city, really. I quite enjoyed my one visit there many years ago. There was a nice castle, I think.
But it was in Budapest, it seems, that “Rocktopia,” a garish and gaudy mashup of classical chestnuts and classic rock anthems, was first born in 2016. Now it is installed for six weeks at the Broadway Theatre — though it seems more fitting for Las Vegas, the city that spawned the marketing slogan lampooned above.
The brainchild — I use the term loosely — of the singer Rob Evans, who appears in the show, and the conductor, or “maestro” as he styles himself, Randall Craig Fleischer, “Rocktopia” blends together snippets of classical music compositions, mainly from the greatest-hits list, with arena-rock staples, mainly from the 1970s and 1980s. If you’ve ever pined to hear Rachmaninoff and Heart in the same suite of music, or Beethoven and Led Zeppelin back to back, this is your chance.
Your only chance, I fondly hope.
The portentous opening strains of Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” (yes, that bit from “2001: A Space Odyssey”) lead quickly if implausibly into the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” performed by Evans, who intermittently acts as a master of ceremonies, and Tony Vincent, who has appeared on Broadway in leading roles in a revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “American Idiot.” He has also appeared on the popular NBC singing contest series “The Voice.”
Vincent’s highflying tenor is a nimble instrument, and he knows how to work a crowd, rock-god style. Jagger-thin and clad in gothic-casual jeans and a T-shirt, he prowls the stage and wails his lungs out on songs including Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” Those two selections are preceded by “Lascia ch’io pianga,” the lilting aria from Handel’s “Rinaldo,” and a snippet of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” There is some lyrical connection between the Handel and the Elton — both are basically beautiful moans of self-pity. But why the Stravinsky precedes the Hendrix is beyond me.
Alyson Cambridge, who sings the Handel as well as Puccini’s “Quando m’en vo” (popularly known as “Musetta’s Waltz”), the latter as an intro to the Beatles’ “Something” (I guess they are both about seductive women, or something?), is the only classical vocalist among the principal performers. A graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, she has some notable opera credits, including performances at the Met. Her vibrant soprano is lovely to hear — and, swathed in a rather complicated sexy-glam gown (the “fashion designer” is Mimi Prober), she also looks gorgeous. But frankly I hope she scoots back to the opera world after these strange cavortings are over.
The other singers are Chloe Lowery, who brings a bracing belt of emotionalism to Heart’s soaring “Alone” (I’ll confess to loving that song in any context) and Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” (I’ll confess to never wanting to hear that again in any context); Kimberly Nichole, also a veteran of “The Voice,” who performs a compelling “Because the Night” (made famous by Patti Smith but first written by Bruce Springsteen — and does he know what’s going on a few blocks north of where he’s installed on Broadway?); and the evening’s “special guest star,” Pat Monahan, lead singer of the band Train, whose reedy rock tenor is deployed on two immortal 1970s anthems, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Aerosmith’s “Dream On.”
Evans, meanwhile, technically the least accomplished of the singers, performs U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” and the aforementioned Beatles song with fine professionalism if no great fireworks. But I wish he’d stayed away from Puccini’s “Nessun dorma.” (Then again, I wish everyone would stay away from that hoary Pavarotti’d-to-death aria.)
The classical selections are used mainly as brief introductions to the rock songs, although in some cases the classical melodies can be heard heaving beneath the overriding rock. The concert’s vibe falls firmly in the wave-your-cigarette-lighter-in-the-air mode of an arena rock performance, with the stars exhorting the audience to sing along to their favorites. The connections uniting the selections are sometimes rather vague or hard to discern, although the music is stitched together with some finesse. The famous piano riff from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” leads into Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” only because they share a titular word, I guess.
The music is provided by a five-piece rock band, a 20-member orchestra and a 30-member choir. It’s all played live, presumably, but the amplification is of such a roof-rattling level that you’d never know if it wasn’t. The sound coming from the fiddle of the talented Celtic violinist Máiréad Nesbitt could have been piped in from Dublin, for all I know.
As for visual allure, the set is backed by strips of video screens onto which digital projections unfold in a dizzying blur: nature scenes, psychedelia, celestial visions, vistas of the city, protest marches, dead rock stars, synapses in my brain exploding — and wait, was that Anne Frank?
I’m not sure her inclusion, during a performance of Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” is in quite the best taste. But then, as you may have gathered, “Rocktopia” is not a show to my taste. Let’s just say that I didn’t find myself humming along to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
“Rocktopia” opened at the Broadway Theatre on on Tues., March 27, 2018.
Creative: Co-Creators: Rob Evan and Randall Craig Fleischer; Music arranged by Randall Craig Fleischer; Musical Director: Tony Bruno; Production Design by Michael Stiller; Sound Design by Nick Kourtides; Video Design by Michael Stiller and Austin Switser; Costume Design by Cynthia Nordstrom; Fashion Design: Mimi Prober.
Producers: Produced by Franzblau Media Inc., Hughes Wall LLC, RT Entertainment Inc., Dr. & Mrs. Bud Negley, Jules & Fran Belkin, M2M Entertainment and Two Hands Entertainment, Inc.
Cast: Alyson Cambridge, Rob Evan, Chloe Lowery, Pat Monahan, Kimberly Nichole, Tony Vincent, Alex Alexander, Henry Aronson, Tony Bruno, Mat Fields, Máiréad Nesbitt, New York Contemporary Choir, The New York Contemporary Symphony Orchestra.